Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Our intuition about TARP was correct

Today's NY Times has an op-ed piece entitled Where the Bailout Went Wrong by Neil Barofsky, special inspector general for TARP. He verifies the near universal distrust for the procedures and results of the "Troubled Asset Relief Program": it helped Wall Street and ignored Main Street. He points out that the legislation enabling TARP (the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act) specifically included not only the provisions that lent money to the big speculative banks but also, and equally, specified that TARP money was to be used to buy back billions of dollars worth of mortgages and renegotiate them to help millions of Americans keep their homes. Furthermore, banks were to file precise statements about their current lending practices and future plans -- in order to prevent a similar debacle in the future.

The actual result was a de-emphasis, verging on neglect, of all aspects of TARP except shoveling money into the coffers of banks deemed "too big to fail." As a result of this bailout, these banks are bigger, stronger, richer, and more arrogant and disdainful of regulation than ever before. They flipped the public and its government the bird by promptly lavishing large bonuses and compensation on their CEOs, traders, and other creators of the mess we are still trying to clean up. This was made easy by the acquiescence of Obama's finance ministry, who come from Wall Street and admire CEO's like Goldman-Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein , Fed-Ex's Frederick Smith and now GE's Jeffrey Immelt. (We won't see people like Robert Reich or Paul Krugman anywhere near the White House in the near or foreseeable future.)

The political arm of Wall Street, also known as the "Republican Party," is doing everything it can to keep pave the way for quick foreclosures and less regulation of lending and speculation. The PTR (formerly GOP) attacks on Elizabeth Warren are part of this offensive. (Note the simultaneous use of this word as noun and adjective.)

The Tea Screamers who, like most of the rest of us, distrust TARP, are too ignorant, arrogant and stubborn to understand exactly why TARP was as bad as it seemed. The bankrolling of this know-nothing movement by the Koch family didn't hurt in keeping the blinders on.

The decades-long movement from FDR to Obama may not reflect a complete U-turn in Democratic policy, but it is a veering off course of about 130 degrees or so. (Don't ask me how I invented that number.)

BTW: I just subscribed to the online NY Times. At least at this time in history, the paper represents about the best in daily, traditional American journalism. We should all help keep the paper strong. (Full disclosure: I am a daily reader of the Times -- as well as lots of other news sources.)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Panel on the Democrats' "message"

My wife and I went to a panel discussion about "Messaging and Communication for the Democratic Party." It was held in Newton MA and featured three speakers: John Walsh, Chair of the Democratic Party of Massachusetts; Deborah Shah, who managed the successful campaigns of Sonia Chang Diaz (State Senate) and Setti Warren (Mayor of Newton); and Larry Carpman who manages a public relations firm and teaches communications at Boston University.

Deborah Shah -- who also worked for Hillary Clinton -- began by mentioning a few complaints that have been leveled against Democrats. First, that they tended to "speak from the head" -- i.e. emphasize the analysis of issues and list problems and specific programs to resolve them. Second -- and I think most important -- Democrats tend to let their opponents define the issues and the terminology, and even cede major points well in advance of any confrontation. For example, both Clinton and Obama basically refused to allow the so-called "public option" (already a watering-down of single-payer) to be part of their health care reform proposal. In other words, they start the give and take of compromise with an already compromised position. Unfortunately, in an example of the Democrats' lack of preparedness, Shah phrased this last point in a series of mixed and missed sports metaphors. Using terms from sports is generally a bad idea, since a large part of the population is not familiar with these terms, and the remaining group of sports-savvy people can be quite contemptuous of their misuse. From her later comments I got the impression that Ms. Shah is a sophisticated political analyst, but her main advice was that Democrats should try to "speak more from the heart than from the head." I was hoping for more specifics as to exactly how they should and would do this. She did point out that when Republicans started talking about "death panels," the Democrats should have replied that we already have them, but they are run by the insurance companies who routinely deny coverage for life-threatening issues. Yes, we know that, but she is simply reiterating our complaints about the Democrats without explaining why the Dems are so ineffective and what corrections can or will be made.

Next, Larry Chapman -- who also worked for John Kerry -- began by agreeing with Shah's main points. I was hoping he would save time by letting it go at that, but he proceeded to give a "PowerPoint presentation" without the PowerPoint. He listed -- presumably from his B.U. course -- a few bullet points about successful public relations (stuff like "Risk", "Repetition" etc.) with only a few not very pointed examples of each. I felt he was saying: better get this down, it'll be on the next quiz. He tried to give some examples from "pop" culture but was seemingly unprepared to come up with anything -- finally admitting he was not that conversant with contemporary music or TV. Once again this was not a good sign for the ability of Democrats -- or even their PR people -- to come up with "zingers." He also repeated the self-serving line that "we" Democrats are used to thinking -- presumably deeply -- about the issues, while the Republicans played on the emotions. Speaking for himself, he said that "we should not become like our enemies." Presumably he didn't mean we should keep winning the occasional battles but losing wars. Presumably he didn't mean we should be out-Foxed in the use of the media at almost every turn. I was hoping, once again, that the Democrats could actually hire some PR people who are creative, clever and effective. I'm still holding my breath.

(As I've said, the Democrats have yet to come up with anything remotely as good as the Republicans' clip of Kerry wind-surfing in twists and turns, or Sarah Palin's great line: "How's that hopey-changey thing workin' out for ya?")

Finally, John Walsh gave a long exhortation to expand "grass-roots" organizing: "Each of you in this room should contact 50 friends" etc. This is, of course, nothing new. The Republicans do the same thing. He suggested that there are "more of us than of them." This may be true, but unless the Democrats can stop enervating their base by selling out to Big Pharma, Big Banks and Big Insurance, whatever advantage we may have will be lost. Naturally, he downplayed the debacle that was the Coakley campaign against Scott Brown by emphasizing Deval Patrick's win over Charley Baker -- though even he had to admit that Baker "shot himself in the head" [sic: the expression requires "foot"] by running a terrible campaign. Walsh also downplayed the Republicans' success with the TV and print media by asserting that these are declining modes of communication; he suggested that we would be more successful with blogs, Facebook, e-mails and Twitter. I couldn't figure out why the mostly verbally inept Dems should find these media any more congenial than the more traditional ones. However, I admired Walsh's enthusiasm and optimism, while remaining personally unconvinced. He was not responsible for Martha Coakley's ignominious defeat and I'm sure he'll work hard to prevent another such disaster here in Massachusetts. (Too bad our Dems couldn't have nominated a real FDR Democrat like Mike Capuano, who, unlike Coakley, would have gone out to shake hands with people at Fenway Park, Boston Garden, and the local supermarket.)

I came away from this discussion as frustrated as when I entered. The Democrats simply don't have the intellectual discipline at this point to counter the Republicans. Nationally, they pull their punches because, to a great extent, they are subject to the same controlling force as the Republicans: Big Business. They could have used reconciliation earlier than they did to pass a better healthcare bill, but though they had large majorities, they were bound by backroom deals with Big Pharma and the Insurance Industry (who later knifed them in the back anyway). (This reminds me of several of the earlier Civil War campaigns where the North had military superiority but the South made scores of phony cannons out of trees and convinced the ineffective union Gen. McClellan that he was outgunned.) They caved in the face of the slightest threat of fillibuster; they wimped out on taxing millionaires or their estates; their legislative and gubernatorial losses in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states dealt serious blows to organized labor. (Walsh claims the unions will benefit from the backlash -- as if the Dems planned it that way. If he were right, the Dems should have stood firm on repealing the Bush Tax Cuts, knowing that the unemployed would eventually benefit from the backlash against the Republicans for denying them extensions of unemployment insurance. I happen to believe this, but I doubt that Walsh does -- at least he wouldn't say so publicly.) And don't get me started again on the Dems affair with Wall Street. The list goes on.

The Democratic party will not become powerful until: (1) it gets a whole lot smarter and more creative; (2) it is willing to play grown-up hardball and stops patting itself on its back for being so high-brow (which it ain't) and principled (which it ain't either); and (3) it acknowledges that the Republicans have been playing and winning class warfare since Reagan, and starts making some class warfare noises of its own. (That will involve overcoming a century of red-baiting.) See also my two blogs on why workers dump Dems: Part I and Part II.

BTW: During the audience participation part of the forum, I suggested that, for starters, the Democrats refer to the Republicans as the Party for The Rich (PTR) instead of the GOP, and that the Democrats, under the (AFL-CIO) slogan "Make Wall Street Pay", press for a Financial Services Tax (see my blog on The Parasite Tax). Their interest in these specific proposals seemed nil.

We personally will contribute only to specific Democrats running for specific offices -- We simply do not trust the national party to support actively even unions and traditional New Deal programs.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The sort of people the Republicans hate

In today's column, Paul Krugman points out that the Republicans are deperately trying to attack Elizabeth Warren -- the president's Special Advisor on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She is not only one of the most competent and reasonable people around, and an expert on financial reform, but also is one of the few people who foresaw and warned about the financial debacle which nearly destroyed out economy. Just the sort of person whose credentials the Republicans fear and hate. This is, of course, in keeping with their policy of being the lackeys of Big Business and Wall Street.

Another person that the PTR and its corporate masters hate is Donald Berwick, Administrator of Medicare and Medicaid Services. Every time I've heard him on the news, or read his statements, he has been quite accommodating to the Republicans -- for example calmly pointing out that, no, he didn't favor the British health care system, but that our system had to be tailored to our unique situation (with both private and public care providers). They hate him for this, and especially for the fact that his was a "recess" appointment. As Obama said, and Berwick's actions seem to indicate, he is one of the most qualified people for this position. As I said above: Just the sort of person whose credentials the Republicans fear and hate.

On the other hand, the kind of people the Republicans favor for administrative positions are ex-CEOs of large companies or lawyers for the same. Just check out the kind of folks Nixon, Reagan, and Bush appointed.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Pinpoint strikes

The U.S., the most trusted name in missiles and bombs, has launched over 100 cruise missiles at targets in Libya. Aswe know, these missiles are so accurate that they will only kill operators of anti-aircraft batteries, even though these guns, as usual, are located in civilian areas. Of course, I don't imagine that there will be any collateral damage as has been known to occur in other battles.

The reason that these missiles have to take out anti-aircraft batteries is to protect the bombers from ground fire. So, although it won't happen, civilians may be killed in order to protect pilots who are supposedly protecting civilians.

Couldn't the U.S. at least have the decency to let someone else do this dirty work for once?

Science non-fiction

Read this: Lessons from Chernobyl .

Friday, March 18, 2011

No "black swans" near Sendai, but fortunes and crimes

Today's Boston Globe contains an article by Jason Clenfield (Bloomberg News) with some interesting background to the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan. Here is a key paragraph:

"Nuclear engineers and academics who have worked in Japan’s atomic power industry spoke in interviews of a history of accidents, faked reports, and inaction by a succession of Liberal Democratic Party governments that ran Japan for nearly all of the postwar period."

(Read the rest of the article here.)

A tsunami is not a "black swan" -- see my blog about this from last Tuesday. We know these waves happen, and we especially know they happen near Japan (the word tsunami is, in fact, Japanese, meaning "harbor waves"). But now we know for certainty that the danger to the cooling system of nuclear plants from tsunamis was also foreseen and officially reported (see above article) to many governments, including Japan's. Until we reward the whistle blowers and others who report dangers and advocate proper safety, and until we punish those who fail to listen to, or who smear these truth-tellers, we will continue to face disasters that are foreseen and a largely avoidable.

One of my favorite sayings goes:

Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.

(This is an adage; I'm not suggesting that it is always literally true; however, I think that generally it's a very useful guideline for analysis.)

Tokyo Electric, which owns the compromised power plants, no doubt made a great fortune, as has G.E. which designed them, and built some. Investors also made lots of money. As the article referred to above shows, a lot of this success was based on falsifying safety reports and cutting corners with respect to backup and other safety issues. Also, regulators didn't regulate. If they had, then Tokyo Electric might have gone under financially decades ago as a result of at least one major defect which was covered up. But T.E. was too big or too important to fail. Sounds familiar?

What we see here is what we saw in the Savings and Loan and the Subprime Mortgage crises: profit is individualized but risk is socialized. The wealthy make the big bucks and leave a mess for the rest of us to clean up. (I don't think too many stockholders or execs of Tokyo Electric are risking their lives taking water to the fuel-rod pool in reactor #4.) This is exactly why so many of the arguments given by conservatives to justify large profits and executive compensation are wrong. Maybe -- maybe -- people who take risks deserve to be rewarded, but in our society, the capitalists claim the rewards while the risks are socialized.

(Take the company seeking minerals, which cuts off the top of a mountain and throws it into surrounding valleys, woods and streams. If they don't find what they want, their expenses are deductible; if they do, they make a fortune; in either case, we have to clean the pollution and take care of the people who are sickened or who lose their homes or livelihoods because of the ruined countryside.)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Earthquakes and global warming

It is important to keep speculation about global warming and the effects of human technology within the bounds of science. It does no good for the cause of ecology and responsible "earth stewardship" to try to blame every natural disaster on the use of fossil fuels.

Thus, the recent conjecture that the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan are due to the release of pressure from melting glaciers and icecaps must be assessed calmly and scientifically. As far as I have read, the judgment is that this melting can have little effect on the massive, continent-sized tectonic plates whose shifting causes these seismic events. In short, the masses of water/ice involved is several orders of magnitude smaller than the plates themselves.

This may not be the absolute, final word on the issue, since few questions in science are resolved absolutely, but for the moment that's the way it stands. To read more, follow this link to ABC Science (Australian Broadcasting Co. Science online, a free science web service).

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Black Swans and Tsunamis

It's been hard to write a mere blog because of the tension surrounding the unfolding events in Japan. The threat of nuclear meltdown has to be, for the Japanese, like the realization of one's worst nightmare: Hiroshima and Nagasaki coming from the dark past to evoke the horrors of burning and sickness. Most of the time I've been trying to imagine what's it's like for them during these agonizing days.

Yet, we have to try to learn something from everything we experience. What can we learn from a massive earthquake and tsunami, and from the ensuing and continuing nuclear crisis?

The first thing, it seems, is that earthquakes and tidal waves can always be much worse, by orders of magnitude, than we can imagine or plan for. A long, thick reinforced seawall along the city of Shizugawa, two stories high, was supposed to protect from tsunamis; but, it was overwhelmed and breached in seconds, and the town, with its tsunami shelters, was wiped from the face of the earth; all people could do was run -- until the waters caught up with them...

As far as nuclear power plants are concerned, there have been three main concerns: earthquakes, terrorism, and "accidents." Chernobyl and TMI were of the last type, with the meltdown in Chernobyl probably directly accounting for a thousand deaths and many more thousands of illnesses. We have not yet had a terrorism incident, but the sequence of events in Japan show that a direct, explosive breach of the protective shells of certain reactors is not needed in order to set them on a path of self-destruction. We now see that cooling systems are a weak link, and backup power for them is also fragile.

I recently read that nuclear plants in the U.S. must be designed to withstand the worst natural event that has ever happened in their area. Think about that -- especially in terms of what we know about chaos, history being made, and Murphy's Law -- and don't forget O-rings and the Challenger disaster.

Which brings me to "Black Swans" -- and I don't mean spinoffs from the Natalie Portman movie. Here's the first paragraphs from the Wikipedia article:

"The Black Swan Theory or Theory of Black Swan Events is a metaphor that encapsulates the concept that The event is a surprise (to the observer) and has a major impact. After the fact, the event is rationalized by hindsight.

The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain:

  1. The disproportionate role of high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance and technology
  2. The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities)
  3. The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs

Unlike the earlier philosophical "black swan problem", the "Black Swan Theory" (capitalized) refers only to unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence and their dominant role in history. Such events, considered extreme outliers, collectively play vastly larger roles than regular occurrences.

Black Swan Events were characterized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book (revised and completed in 2010), The Black Swan. Taleb regards almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments as "black swans"—undirected and unpredicted. He gives the rise of the Internet, the personal computer, World War I, and the September 11 attacks as examples of Black Swan Events."

Insofar as an event is unpredicted, Taleb's criterion is too loose. Few people can predict the winner of a horse race, say, yet we know that some horse will win. Nobody knew exactly what incident would precipitate WWI, yet I sure dozens of historians and statesmen realized it could easily happen. The internet and personal computer phenomena were widely conjectured by science fiction writers long before they became phenomena. The September 11 attacks were considered possible in memos prepared by U.S. security officials long before they took place, as documented in the 9/11 report. Here is a source that lists, with references, many warnings about the nature and timing of possible Al-Qaeda attacks.

In the sciences it is more likely to have Black Swans because of the structured way in which scientific theories are produced and the nature of funding and refereeing of papers: I don't want to get into that bit of the philosophy of science here. However, in the fields of politics and international affairs, the operative principle is not the unpredicted or unpredictable, but rather the marginalization of critics. In the early days of American involvement in Viet Nam, critics could barely find outlets for their point of view; many in official positions were censored, censured, or even fired. People who marched were derided as "hippies" or even attacked by police or construction worker thugs armed with wrenches and pipes. In the early days of the "dot-com" or "S&L" or "housing bubble" crises, there were plenty of nay and doom sayers, but they didn't get the Times and Wall Street Journal play that, say, Alan Greenspan or Larry Summers did. The financial collapse of 2008 was a surprise only because those people who predicted it were marginalized, and the those who thought they were profiting didn't want to hear otherwise.

OK, so here's the point. We have to listen carefully to what people are saying, and begin to compare their words with reality. Sometimes the voices that are hard to detect turn out to be correct more often than the blowhards on the networks or CNN or even the Times. We must punish those who are wrong about important things -- Republican Alan Greenspan, Democrat Robert Rubin (check out his record during the 2008 crisis here), most of the other Republicans, and a lot of mainstream Democrats -- by publicizing their mistakes and shifting them from positions of power. On the other hand, the other two Roberts (Kuttner and Reich) and Paul Krugman have been more nearly correct on important matters of economics -- will Obama appoint them to cabinet positions? Don't hold your breath.

For about 30 years critics have been warning about the dangers of the so-called "Mark I" nuclear reactors designed by GE -- the same kind of reactors that are failing in Japan. The criticism has involved their vulnerable enclosures -- the same type enclosures that are failing at this time. Unfortunately it is now too late for the residents of Sendai and other stricken communities in northeastern Japan, but perhaps these critics of nuclear power should be rewarded for being correct with appointments to agencies and cabinet positions, and those corporate shills who told us all that everything about nuclear power was just fine should be shuffled out (to pasture). (See this article about the so-called Japanese leadership.)

Until we hold people accountable for their predictions and advice, and start to listen to alternate expert voices, we will continue to be more-than-necessarily prone to those vagaries of fate that too often lead to foreseen disasters.

(past criticisms of Mark I reactors)

(weak Japanese leadership and disbelief in industry press releases)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Crowley, Obama and Bradley Manning update

P. J. Crowley, a State Department Spokesman, said "What is being done to Bradley Manning is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid on the part of the department of defense." He is referring to the quasi-torture that Manning is being subjected to during his imprisonment by the military in Quantico, VA. Today, President Obama forced Crowley to resign. Obama knows that Manning's treatment is just fine because he asked the Pentagon if that wasn't just the case; and, guess what? The Pentagon said everything is just fine.

As you know, I strongly suspect that the Obama administration is trying to "soften up" Manning so that he will implicate Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in the "borrowing" of documents that the military and State Department would rather we didn't see.

A tsunami of idiocy

Michele Bachmann, as you might expect, thinks that Concord NH is Concord MA. She's fuzzy about a lot of things, as well as opinionated about most things. As Mike Barnicle (former Boston Globe columnist) used to say, she's "about as smart as a fire hydrant."

Anyway, Ms. Bachmann and her Tea Screamer friends want smaller government and fewer regulations. They want to cut, among other things, the National Weather Service and its subdivision concerned with Tsunami alerts. Good call, huh?

They also don't like regulations. They think regulations kill jobs -- while lack of regulations merely kills people.

First it was "drill baby drill" -- and we know what happened then. Now it's "build nukes now" (and not too many regulations please).

Is there never any penalty for being just plain wrong about things? For example, Robert M. Gates, Sec. of Defense, telling us now that the last N wars we fought were ill-advised and, "we have never once got it right." Seems to me that the Congress ought, at least, to have a hearing in which Gates and Rumsfeld cross-examine each other; or maybe no one cares whether there was any good reason to fight past and current wars.

Truly pitiful and beneath contempt.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Meta man

The sage of the Upper West Side, David Brooks, has been busy distilling distillations, and has given birth to a quasi-novel about the human mind. It is reviewed in today's NY Times. If I had as many spots on my to-do list as there are places in Amazon's best-sellers list, it would rank about 1,000,000 or so -- in other words, somewhere around Amazon's ranking of my own text on the theoretical underpinnings of calculus... At least my book delivers on its (somewhat specialized) promises.

I often wonder how such a third rate mind got to be a regular columnist for the NY Times. Any theories? Maybe Brooks has one.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Video about Citizens United

Blog reader David S has kindly forwarded the URL of this very effective video discussing corporations and the Citizens United case. CLICK HERE to see it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Military intervention in Libya

The U.S. (and even Europe in general) is in no moral position to intervene anywhere in the world at this time. Since WWII (which was preceded by the coddling of European fascism and corporate complicity in rearming Germany), U.S. military intervention has resulted in such great numbers of deaths of innocents as to dwarf any possible justification. Vietnam (and Cambodia and Laos), Afghanistan and Iraq were all large-scale wars of choice. They were sold with the usual hoopla and words about democracy: yada yada. They were all military and moral mistakes.

American foreign policy has been largely a bloody and expensive fraud, and the lives of tens of thousands of American troops were, to put it bluntly, wasted. The "other" deaths: of the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of civilians -- maybe millions -- are evidence of a criminal arrogance that will taint our reputation for many generations -- maybe forever.

The last thing we need to do now is send the American bombers -- the Johnny-one-notes of our foreign "presence" -- over Tripoli. The Libyans have a chance to get rid of the murderer Qaddafi. Let's hope they succeed. If they don't, they will try again, or he will die of old age. If we start bombing, you know that thousands will be killed, and not just the dictator's minions and mercenaries. American-caused collateral damage always seems to amount to more than the damage caused by the forces we are nominally fighting.

The Europeans -- France, Germany, England, Italy -- are the faces of old-world imperialism and death, all currently ruled by old-line conservative governments. Their moral claims are hardly redeeming, especially when it comes to oil and other natural resources.

Let's keep the Western death squads contained for once.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

George Will: analyst manqué

Mike Huckabee has some decent moral fibre in him; Newt Gingrich has nothing. But both of them have no idea of logic or consistency or fact. (Huckabee is hopelessly born-again, and Gingrich is simply a vile human being -- even looks it.)

George Will is a peculiar conservative. He can differentiate fact from fiction -- usually -- but he simply can't make the break with conservative ideology. In a recent Washington Post column, which you can read here, he points out how crazy Huckabee's and Gingrich's rantings are. He also thinks that they are hurting the "conservative party" (read: Republicans). In fact, the Republicans are totally on booard with the Huckabee and Gingrich idiocy -- always have been and always will be. Huckabee is most popular among them when he is most extreme, and Gingrich was for a long time their spokesperson. Will may not like what he sees, but Will is out of touch with the Republican Party. He's much better when he can expound on non-ideological subjects, like baseball (though he's no Angell).

Change in Wisconsin

The latest Rasmussen poll seems to indicate the voters in Wisconsin now disapprove of Governor Scott Walker by a 57% to 43% margin. Walker was elected with 52% of the vote last year.

This is an indicator of two things. First of all, traditional Democratic voters -- young people, blacks, and even progressives -- sat on their hands instead of pulling the voting lever last election. In spite of their repeated claims, Republicans have absolutely no mandate to make radical cuts in government priorities. Neither do they have majority support to dismantle the Healthcare bill. (Somewhat less than half of voters support the bill as is, but of the remaining half, about half think it doesn't go far enough.)

Secondly, Walker never made it clear when campaigning how radical his "solution" to Wisconsin's fiscal problems would be. Although exact memories are short, most people are not inclined to demonize the labor movement, especially after they realize that unionized labor includes the folks who teach their kids, patrol their streets, and put out their fires. It is understandable -- sort of -- that people who are worried about their jobs and their families' financial security might, at first, be resentful of unionized workers who, by dint of their unions, are treated with more respect. Perhaps we are seeing these people take a second look at their resentment.

People also realizing that Walker's tax cuts -- especially the provision that makes upping the property tax impossible -- will wreak havoc with education. This direct attack on schools is such an egregious over-reach that it may well make a recall against Walker and several Republican legislators a real possibility next year. (Yikes, shades of Gray Davis!) I sure hope so.

Since the right long ago declared war on the middle class, it is about time that we are seeing a bit of "class warfare" start up on our side. Too bad Obama is still making nice to the PTR (Party for The Rich, formerly GOP).

Friday, March 4, 2011

Free speech issues.

There were two interesting stories about free speech this week. The national one was the Supreme Court decision that the vile Westboro Baptist Church has a right to picked funerals with their hateful anti-gay signs. This was an excellent decision -- give credit where credit is due. The Westboro creeps were on public land exercising their right to free speech. To have ruled otherwise would have opened the door to the erosion of free speech rights for reasonable but unpopular groups. Furthermore, the more exposure the Westboro group has, the more they are detested. So it's a win-win decision. Groups like Westboro so-called "church" give not just themselves but other anti-gay groups a well-deserved bad name; so let them picket.

The other free speech story is more local. The University of Massachusetts Amherst has an independent -- not financed by the school -- newspaper called The Daily Collegian. In an act of abject cowardice, The Collegian fired one of its student columnists for writing a column containing "controversial" opinions about rape. They also fired the editor who allowed the article to appear.

Of course, the first thing to do is to read the article, so here it is. It presents a point of view and phraseology that may be controversial to some, but is pretty much the standard for writing and attitude about women and sex that prevailed until very recent times. Some of it could have been cut and pasted from current "Christian" and right-wing web sites. For example:

"If a young woman wears a promiscuous outfit to a party, then proceeds to drink and flirt excessively, she should not blame men for her downfall. "

(When was the last time you saw the word "downfall" in this context?)

The author is also a bit confused by logic and statistics, as shown by her statement about Planned Parenthood:

"However, the organization’s website misleads in reporting that abortions constitute only 3 percent of its services. In reality, it performs about 23 percent of all abortions performed each year in the U.S."

Of course, the point isn't whether this is a good or correct article, it's whether its appearance, in the words of The Collegian's Editor-in-Chief, “clearly failed to uphold our institutional standards on content. The members of our Editorial Board were not alerted [to] what was clearly potentially controversial [my italics] content, which is standard procedure so that we can form a consensus.’’ If columnists can only present non-controversial material, then why have columnists at all? Might as well present the editors' editorial and leave it at that.

This is not, strictly speaking, a free speech issue. No one has the "right" to be a columnist or to have an opinion published by a newspaper or aired by a station. Nevertheless, the desire to avoid anything debatable or controversial can lead to a situation where the actual freedoms of speech and press become moot. If editors refuse to publish unpopular views, then college newspapers might just as well be written by the administration, and public newspapers by an elected committee or the Legion of Decency (if there still is such a thing).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Whose stock market?

Thanks to Maxine for pointing out the following article on the irrelevance of the major stock markets:
Wall Street's Dead End (by Felix Salmon).

It explains why there are fewer IPOs these days, and why companies now prefer to be privately traded. Once again, the stuff we were taught in school about the virtues of capitalism are becoming more and more "inoperative."